Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 8 June, 2001

Adam Rapp's Blackbird is surely among the handful of bleakest plays to be staged in London this year... and for a city that has just seen a Sarah Kane retrospective, that's saying something. Either present onstage or alluded to in some detail in Rapp's two-hander are Gulf War syndrome, spinal injury, incontinence (both kinds), heroin addiction, prostitution, incestuous pregnancy, backstreet abortion, hepatitis and, inevitably, death. After that catalogue, it may strain credulity that the writer calls it a love story, but he's right. It is keen and particular dramatic irony rather than blunt sarcasm that has led director Mike Bradwell to punctuate the Bush's production with tracks from The Magnetic Fields' album 69 Love Songs.

Baylis and Froggy share a squalid, unkempt, badly converted apartment on New York's Canal Street. He is a war veteran, disabled by a herniated disc; she's a junkie (Baylis has at least kicked that habit) who turns tricks for her fixes, and indeed seems to have a sexual compulsion. Baylis, more or less confined to his chair (and nursing a foot injury which, oddly, is never even alluded to), is a creature composed almost entirely of rage; Froggy, who takes to their makeshift bed with a fever, is so spaced that she treats all past and present events, however disturbing to Baylis and the audience, with the same casualness with which she recounts her dreams. They bicker constantly and drive each other up the wall, but somewhere in each of their obscure hearts is an affection and cherishment of the other as they negotiate a grim Christmas Eve.

Rapp is not writing about the indomitability of the human heart the play's final movement makes that clear. But he is examining its persistence, even in the most implausible of places and situations. Elizabeth Reaser (reprising the role of Froggy from the play's off-Broadway run at PS122 last year) and Paul Sparks deliver performances of commitment and conviction, sometimes painful in their detail of the characters' abasement. This is not a play to be liked, much less enjoyed; it is not pleasant in any meaningful sense, but one does leave with a sense of having been somehow buoyed by it even amid its relentless downward spiral.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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